Sunday, February 20, 2011

Russian Gogol via Australian Rush Leads to Laughter

The Australians are back! Last year Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush bowled us over with their production of “Exit the King” on Broadway. It was a scrumptious show, combining hilarity and heartbreak, exported to America from their Australian theatre company Belvoir. They've done it again. This year, the duo have re-created the production that jump-started their careers two decades ago, the dramatization of Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Diary of a Madman,” with a script written by David Colman, Rush, and Armfield. Oh happy we, who have the opportunity to see this bravura performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre.

This extraordinary production is a brilliant telling of Gogol’s tale, replete with shadow characters, music and musicians who “speak” back to the infamous Madman, Poprishchin. Poprishchin is a government clerk of the ninth grade, an impoverished “gentleman” who earns his tiny attic room as a civil servant with the tiny claim to glory of being chosen to sharpen the big boss’s quills. This is the mid-nineteenth century, Russia, and it’s cold. Poprishchin’s garret is bare but for a bed with a flimsy quilt, two throw pillows, a small table and chair, and stacks of newspapers, one easily twice his height. The room is reached by a poorly lit staircase we see at the foot of the stage, and topped by a leaky roof with a dirty skylight.

Over two acts, we watch Poprishchin devolve into delusion. For the first half, this is deliciously hilarious, with Poprishchin falling for the daughter of the big boss, a pretty, snobby little thing who wouldn’t deign to notice him. Then he “hears” conversations between her dog and another, including the claim of one that she – the dog, not the lady -- had written letters that must have gone astray. Letters? Poprishchin must find this correspondence, and does. The story of the boss’ daughter falling in love with a servant of the bedchamber – that is, a gentleman with a gentleman’s job and station – is told through the dogs’ correspondence. The act of retrieving that correspondence was not without peril to Poprishchin, and he wears the scars for the rest of the play. His daily diary entries inform us of the doings of his world, including a vacancy on the Spanish throne. Naturally, this leads the out-of-place Poprishchin to believe that he is the missing King of Spain, hiding in Russia until the Spanish delegation comes to install him on the throne.

Follow? You will. Everything Geoffrey Rush’s Poprishchin says makes perfect sense, even when it’s quite mad.

This is all exceptionally sad, of course, but we don’t respond to the sadness until it slaps us in the face in the second act. We just laugh uproariously. Geoffrey Rush is loose-limbed, his long hands seem to reach down to his ankles, he can do things with his arms you wouldn’t believe and might not even see until you look beyond him to the massive shadow he casts on the stage walls. He is vocally foppish, his reddish hair styled to be odd and clownlike in a frightfully fragile way. His feet don’t appear to touch the ground, his hands flutter to keep him afloat. Even if you had the pleasure of seeing Rush’s Tony-winning turn in “Exit the King,” you ain’t seeing nothin’ yet.

Accompanying Mr. Rush’s journey is Yael Stone, playing the Finnish maid Tuovi – a delightful creature who rushes about bent over, scrubbing, practicing her Russian (which we thankfully hear in bad English) and trying to take care of the ever worsening Poprishchin; Ms. Stone also plays the aloof love interest Sophia, a vision in white; as well as a fellow resident of “Madrid” in the final scenes. At one point she even joins the musicians in the box creating the auditory world of our favorite Madman. This young woman is remarkable, malleable, we adore her immediately as the grateful and kind servant with enormous energy and humor. If anyone could have kept Poprishchin sane, it would have been her, but it was too late.

What Poprishchin does not have, he creates out of his surroundings and his imagination, and it’s all marvelous until he exits his reality into his much pleasanter world of unreality. No amount of beatings will bring him out. Before the twentieth century (and probably late into it), the mad were hidden away and abused, so the viewer must wonder why anyone would be expected to come to his “senses” while being whipped. Staying mad seems much safer, if not saner.

The Musicians are Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim, and the play cannot be considered separately from them. They are additional voices to the scenes, they comment, they respond, they goad, they aid. Alan John’s music (after Mussorgsky, per the program) is mournful and joyous, still and spritely, by turns. It and its performers provide additional levels to the story.

Costume design is clever and hilarious and remarkably useful by Tess Schofield, set design by Catherine Martin is dark, dank, dangerous, delightful. Lighting by Mark Shelton, sound by Paul Charlier are outstanding, creating aural and visual shadows against the stark set.

Once again, these artists have given us hilarity and heartbreak in one evening. “Diary of a Madman” is a rare treat, a perfectly integrated production of script, sound, and sights brought together in profound harmony by Mr. Armfield with a virtuoso performance from Mr. Rush. In years to come, you want to be able to answer “yes” to the question: “Did you see his Poprishchin?”

The good news is, it’s still running. You have until March 12.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, still chuckling at a look here, a line there, over a week later.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Wintry Tale Well Told

Told with perfect pacing, driving needs, obstacles aplenty, goals pursued up to more obstacles, with a never-ending build of extraordinary tension, Winter’s Bone is a storyteller’s story. The film is riveting through to its totally satisfying and vaguely frightening end.

The acting is simple, straightforward, totally believable. Raw. The reality of the emotions, sights, sounds is exhausting. “Winter’s Bone” is unrelenting, it has no comfort zone, and much as we may try to insulate ourselves from the cold and the rough and the horrors of the world Ree Dolly inhabits, we cannot.

There are many films and stories with unlikable characters, but this one has some pretty despicable folk in it, including some that initially appear pretty rotten, but who then pale in comparison to the characters we meet as the story progresses. Seventy-odd years ago, seemingly similar characters were rather amusing in old black-and-white movies showing bootleg alcohol stills and caricatures of the impoverished people residing in them there hills -- shotgun-toting hillbillies scaring off revenuers. In “Winter’s Bone,” the same people are still in the same place, still insular, no longer caricatures, and now the stills are meth labs, and the enemy is not revenuers – it’s all outsiders and sometimes their own kin. The untamed country builds shadows in the foliage and around the next hill that hide deeper secrets than any city alleyway. And just to confuse the viewer, “Winter’s Bone” has a few, treasured moments of kindness, even sweetness. Its people are terrifying, and sometimes surprising.

This film works on many levels, first and foremost good storytelling. The teenaged protagonist, Ree Dolly, is met with a real problem of survival in the early minutes of the film. No messing around. She spends the next 80 or so minutes hitting brick walls built and supported by mean ungenerous, unkind people, most of whom are related to her. Each push for desperately needed information fails, but Ree keeps on because the stakes are so very high. She moves forward, trying to climb over and skirt obstacles, finding she cannot, then changes her goal to suit new facts. This is great storytelling.

Director Debra Granik does a sterling job with the excellent screenplay she wrote with Anne Rosselini based on a novel I’m afraid to read by Daniel Woodrell. The pace of the film is unrelenting, the story pushes, heroine (and that is a correct characterization here) Ree pushes back, the tension builds to an unbearable point more than once. This viewer’s shoulders and fists were tight, praying for release.

As Ree’s uncle, John Hawkes combines fierceness with gentleness, and his performance is, not surprisingly, pitch perfect. Also showing up with a reliable, quiet characterization is Garret Dillahunt as the Sheriff, a despicable and difficult job in a hostile region. Deep, dark work is done by a string of wonderful actors with great faces that will imprint in your mind’s eye – Dale Dickey, Casey MacLaren, Sheryl Lee, Ronnie Hall, Shelly Waggener. These people are so good you’d think they just live out there in the hills and aren’t actors at all.

Most amazing of all these fine, fine actors is Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly. In the film's opening shots, I looked at her and saw a slave to her family. She is tough as nails and soft as a baby blanket; she is big sister, teacher, mother, and finally father. Ree is insightful and courageous, resilient and smart enough to be frightened of her own relations while doing her best not to show it. Ms. Lawrence’s performance is the spine of the film – and all without dazzling special effects. The girl is amazing.

There’s a chance I won’t watch this film again, in the way I’ll never re-read Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird” which gave me waking nightmares. The actions and the rules of these present-day characters in the Ozarks are more terrifying than any zombie movie could ever be.

Winter’s Bone” tells a fine nerve-wracking story, a terrifying tale of a community with rules known to all, where transgressors will be held to account. Where the toddlers are taught to shoot, skin, and stew a squirrel. Where kindness and decency are more readily punished than crime. These people are tired out by the time they’re ten.

When we are worn to the bone, we are revealed. “Winter’s Bone” casts light on all sides of the human animal, and reveals the dark in all of us.

Now that’s a great movie.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, still listening to the film's fine score.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Most Disheartening Film of the Year

Blue Valentine” has a smart script by writer/director Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis. Although it includes scenes of joy in a child’s laughter and scenes of sweet young love, the story does not make for a film one enjoys. It also does not make for a film in which one is quite sure who to root for.

Scenes depicting the excitement of a burgeoning relationship and degeneration of a marriage are delightful and devastating by turns. Morose, somber, far from sober, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling revel as they dive deep into their characters. These two young actors are powerful players and will rule marquees for years to come. They are scintillating, sincere, articulate in their realistic mumblings.

The story of Cindy and Dean is told in non-linear fashion, from the opening scenes of a beautiful child calling a name -- of her friend? her sister? We are immediately involved. We see the couple, married with said child, at a stage in their marriage they might survive, or might not. We jump back to see the couple in their past, separate, then coming together. It’s a lovely story. We jump forward to today, back to yesterday, and see tomorrow. Despite the time travel, the film does have a beginning, middle, and end. What it does not have is a single protagonist with goals. We’ve no idea what Cindy wants, what she’ll do to get it, or what’s in her way. Dean, on the other hand, wants one thing from the get-go: true love, romantic style. His obstacle: reality.

Alcohol compounds Dean’s beliefs and dissipates his lovability. As for Cindy, it appears that Michelle Williams loves to drop us into the depths of despair – from her character in “Brokeback Mountain” and in her entirely brilliant but demoralizing “Wendy and Lucy,” this character Cindy is the third in her triumvirate of misery. Please, Ms. Williams, do some other kind of film next. Who knew from her “Dawson’s Creek” days that she would grow up to do offbeat indie type depressing movies. Oh, right. “Dawson’s Creek” wasn’t exactly jolly.

Cindy’s father, expertly played by John Doman, appeared a dreadful bully to her ineffectual mother, the subtle Maryann Plunkett, and one might have expected the story to go another way. Why marry if your husband will end up treating you like garbage? But Cindy’s search for love had different consequences. The sweet relationship between Cindy and her grandmother Jen Jones led to her choice of profession and to meeting Dean. All these characters are portrayed brutally and brilliantly. The actors’ performances are understated, the effect of their underplaying bringing home the reality of this story, forcing us into the room, even when we’d rather be anywhere else.

Aspects of this film are great: A+ for execution by the actors and editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane. “Blue Valentine” shows us the moments in a life that brought the characters from sweet vulnerability to trust to love, then drops us into a pit. Is it the non-linear structure that denies the characters an arc? I don’t think so. They started with hope and ended with none. Not much of an arc if you ask me.

By the devastating end of this film, we understand all, pity all, and can’t wait to walk out into a brisk, downright cold winter night just to breathe clear air.

If you’re a fan of the actors in this film – and who wouldn’t be – you’ll want to rent the DVD, but with all the choices out there at this time, don’t spend your money for the big screen.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to write a review of a better film.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Long Flaxen Bouncing Golden Hair

If you want to be happy, go see “Tangled.” It is pure delight. The animation is stunning, the hair, the wind, the flowers, the hair, the faces, bodies, that hair -- the attention to detail is exceptional. Not a 3D fan, I enjoyed it here, perhaps because it was used to enhance the animation, not take the place of story.

Music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, respectively, were clever, funny, warm and sweet. Some sample rhymes – dreamers, femurs; deadly, medley. Help me, how wonderful are those. Each and every song moves characters and story forward and they are well placed in the witty and wild screenplay by Dan Fogelman (based on the fairy tale “Rapunzel” by the Brothers Grimm, of course).

There’s a long list of wonderful people voicing characters from guards to thugs, each character fully delineated and hilarious. As for the main characters:
  • Zachari Levi (from “Chuck”) is the voice of the thief, Rider (who looks more like Jake Gyllenhall), and he’s quite charming, smarmy, contrite, sincere, and very funny. He also sings quite sweetly.
  • Mandy Moore is Rapunzel, and of course her voice is just right for this blossoming young girl. She’s full of life, exuberance, and joy, whatever her circumstances. And she’s very funny.
  • Donna Murpy does a great job as the wicked kidnapping old crone. She’s a hoot, and her singing, of course, scores.
The horse from the palace guard, Maximus, is just too fabulous. As much a dog as a horse, Maximus competes in my heart with Pascal the chameleon, who is Rapunzel’s best friend. These animals’ facial expressions, body language and action are brilliantly drawn, and are intricately woven into the story.

Rapunzel has created wondrous paintings in her tower prison, vibrant, colorful scenes of nature, earth and sky, and most particularly the highly affecting lanterns released from the royal palace every year on the anniversary of Rapunzel’s birth. When she finally gets out of her tower into the world, Rapunzel lives her paintings, in particular those birthday lanterns. The release by the king and queen of the first lantern in memory of their kidnapped daughter is followed from the top of the castle through the streets and plazas and onto the ships at sea. The light is sublime, the colors exultant, the emotional impact extraordinary. Beware, those prone to weeping at sheer, sweet gorgeousness.

Tangled” just gave so much pleasure I cannot recommend it more heartily. It was directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, but of course this is an animated feature. Art Direction, individual animators, a huge number of people were gathered to put this gorgeous gift together. Apparently this was the most expensive animated film ever made by Disney or anyone else, but it’s so damned delightful, who could complain.

Tangled” has lots of action, frying pans, slingshot moves with long golden hair, dam busting, and the good guys and bad guys satisfactorily getting their due. Go on, let your hair down.

~ Molly Matera, logging off. I have more movies to see before the Oscars....